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2.8 “The Prince of Winterfell”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor
There’s a lot going on in this episode, so much that it feels like we don’t get to spend a substantial amount of time with any one character. It’s also mostly setup for the next episode or two, where everything explodes (in some cases, literally). So it was kind of an unsatisfying episode, but a necessary one for the overall arc of the season.
Theon’s storyline is getting ready for him to be knocked down from his seat as “prince of Winterfell” and made into Ramsay’s play-toy. He’s given one last chance to leave, this time by Yara, who comes in and tells him everything he’s done is stupid. He’s taken Winterfell, but it’s too far inland for Ironborn to hold. He’s killed Bran and Rickon, the only Starks left in Winterfell, and since they were children, it’s not even an act that the Ironborn can appreciate. He thinks he had to kill them for their treachery, but she argues that trying to escape being held prisoner in your own home when it’s occupied by hostile forces isn’t treacherous, it’s brave. He won’t listen to her, so she tells him not to die so far from the sea and leaves him to his fate.
Jon’s getting ready to infiltrate Mance Rayder’s camp, and Qhorin is laying the groundwork for Jon to believably leave the Night’s Watch and “switch sides.” He yells at him about being the cause of the deaths of the rest of the members of their scout troop, pushes him around, and otherwise makes him look like an abused, aggrieved member of the Night’s Watch, able to be turned. Ygritte helps, pointing out to anyone who will listen that he’s Ned Stark’s son and Mance will want to talk to him. On a side note, the costume designers did a really good job with Rattleshirt; he could have come out looking utterly ridiculous, but instead he looks pretty scary.
Tywin up and leaves Harrenhal, deciding that he’s needed more in the defense of King’s Landing. This throws all of Arya’s plans into disarray, as she intended to either tell Jaqen H’ghar to kill Tywin or do it herself. She runs around in a panic looking for Jaqen, which gives us a couple of great Hot Pie moments, but Jaqen’s out on patrol, so she doesn’t find him until after the Lannister forces have left. She yells at him about not being immediately available when she needed him, which he finds moderately amusing, then demands that he immediately go kill Tywin, which he says can’t be done. So then she demands that he help her escape Harrenhal, which he says will cost more than one life, and that’s not what they agreed to. So she pulls a fast one on him: she gives him his own name and marks him for death.
A man is beginning to reconsider the wisdom of putting the power of life and death in the hands of an excitable eleven-year-old.
She agrees to unname him—if she helps her and Hot Pie and Gendry escape. He tells her she has no honor, and she replies with an adorable little bounce of a shrug. So he agrees, telling her to walk out the front gates at midnight, which she does. So Arya’s on the move again, setting up her walkabout through the Riverlands that lasts most of next season, playing political-hostage-football with the Brotherhood and the Hound.
To return again to Tywin, though, his decision to leave her with Gregor continues the pattern of stupid he has with regard to Arya. Even if he hasn’t figured out that she’s Arya, he knows she’s a highborn northern girl, and as such could make a really good hostage. Granted, he might not want to haul her with him on the forced march he’s about to do, but you know who’s a really bad guardian for children? The dude who raped the last queen and smashed her children’s heads against the wall. Yeah. The whole reason Oberyn Martell shows up in season four—to avenge his sister and their children. So putting Arya in the care of this guy doesn’t show any serious concern for her safety. Sure, the plot needs Arya to get out of here and start moving again, but it could have worked just as well with a little aside that someone needs to keep an eye on Arya until they figure out who she is so they can send a raven to her parents and exchange her for money or good behavior or something.
And, since Tywin and Arya are now separated, that’s the last I have to say on that matter (probably).
Everyone in King’s Landing is preparing for Stannis’ arrival, and Tyrion’s on the edge of panic about it. He’s searching every book they have for ideas for strategy, while Bronn tells him that books aren’t going to help. Cersei, meanwhile, has lost all sense of priority and decides now is the time to kidnap and rough up “Tyrion’s whore” (not Shae, because she’s not as smart as she thinks she is), then rub his nose in it. Poor Ros. She’s a character unique to the show, but the writers have taken several other prostitutes and combined them to make her character, so she ends up taking all the abuse that is meted out to several different people in the books. She’s kind of turned into the generic “whore” for the show—need a prostitute for something? Bring out Ros (unless you need two, in which case you get Ros and Daisy). So many power plays are executed by abusing Ros that it gets a little ridiculous—until she dies, which I’ll have a whole lot to say about when we get there.
Dany’s got one small scene that sets her up for entering the House of the Undying and further emphasizes Jorah’s puppy-dog willingness to take any amount of her unreasonableness and abuse as long as it means being near her. This is pretty much his single character trait in the show.
I’ve saved Robb for last because here’s where the complaining starts again. Robb’s on his way back from the Crag with Talisa when he finds out about Cat letting Jaime go, escorted by Brienne, to try trading him for Arya and Sansa. She took matters into her own hands because nobody else seemed to care about the well-being of her daughters and if she hadn’t done something, the Karstarks would have killed Jaime, and that would make matters so much worse. Robb was gone; someone had to make a call and try to protect as many people and as much of the code of warfare and prisoners of war as possible. Robb immediately sends riders out to try to bring Jaime back, and I kind of hate that they didn’t spend two seconds to make a point that Cat made in the books—that by trying to get him back, Robb is turning this into an escape and not an exchange of prisoners. It’s one more way that Robb messes everything up by not listening to his mother.
His relationship with Talisa is another; in fact, it’s probably the biggest one. In the books, Cat doesn’t get a chance to warn Robb about courting and marrying Jeyne Westerling; he just turns up married. Here, she reminds him that he has a duty to repay Walder Frey’s “kindness” by marrying one of his daughters. Days later, Robb tells Talisa that he doesn’t want to marry “the Frey girl” and has sex with Talisa on the floor of his tent.
If it were just sex, everything would probably be fine, but in the next episode (or the one after), he decides to marry her. And the narrative sets this up as a good idea—marrying for love is preferable to marrying for honor. They have a whole conversation about how Robb doesn’t know anything about “the Frey girl,” including her first name or what she looks like. They take turns making (gentle) fun of the fact that he’s marrying this girl for a bridge—“I hope it was a nice bridge,” Talisa says. They minimize the importance that this arrangement has for both Robb and the overall functionality of Westerosi society. Is two marriages (Robb’s and Arya’s) a lot to ask for allowing someone to cross a river? Sure. But Robb needed to try to rescue Ned, so he paid it, or promised to pay it. His choice to renege on it now leads to a whole lot of heartache later.
Also, Talisa is another example of how “girly” things are dismissed or demonized in the show. She explicitly says that she didn’t want to “plan parties and masquerades” like the other highborn ladies, and that she was trained to “play the harp, and dance the latest steps, and recite Valyrian poetry.” She rejects this lifestyle and leaves Volantis, vowing never to live in a slave city again because a slave saved her brother from drowning. The way she lines up “living in a slave city” and “having to do what all the other highborn girls are doing” is a bit troubling. There’s nothing wrong with Talisa not wanting to dance or plan parties or do needlepoint or anything else “girly,” especially since she abandons her birthright in order to avoid doing it. The problem is that she falls right into the “girly = bad” trope that’s being set up and perpetuates throughout the show in general and Sansa’s arc in particular. For noblewomen, planning parties and playing the harp and being able to dance are very important politically. These sorts of things are how alliances are formed and kept, how in-groups and out-groups are defined and enforced, how the country keeps from falling into chaotic warfare every second. It’s not a waste of time, or what women do because they’re not allowed to do anything else. A lot of the most important plot points in the books happen at parties or other types of gathering that require a lot of planning, and the type of atmosphere that the gathering has and whether it’s successful says a lot about the person who did the planning and what their agenda is. Sansa and Tyrion’s wedding feast is small, awkward, and kind of an afterthought—nobody really cares about either of them or their happiness. The Purple Wedding is ostentatious and overdone at a time when the people of the city are starving in the streets. The Red Wedding is awkward and strained and cover for mass slaughter. Martin even makes a point to show how politics and courtesy are just as important as hitting things with swords for keeping the peace. So this complete dismissal of “party planning” as a waste of time, something for “girls,” especially from the mouth of the woman who will become the Queen in the North, is really insulting and generally shows how little the showrunners seem to think of medieval women in general. Only male power is allowed to be cool here—if you’re not running around without an escort, mouthing off to kings or lords, or sticking things with the pointy end, generally “fighting the patriarchy” in an entirely shallow way that only serves the individual woman in question, then you’re weak, a victim, or a tool for someone else’s success.
Political strength is something that’s completely overlooked in the show, which is weird for a show based on books that are all about the politics. The shrewdest political minds of the show—Varys and Petyr—are mocked or demonized, and granted, Petyr does a good job of demonizing himself, but the people in the show frequently imply that Varys is sexually attracted to little boys, which I don’t remember happening at all in the books. Tywin is supposed to be a great political and martial planner, but see above (and the last few weeks) for how his relationship with Arya completely undermines that. Only Tyrion is at all rewarded by the show for his political savvy, and they have to take away a lot of Daenerys’ character development in season six to give him that reward (also undermine their own worldbuilding with regard to slavery and prostitution, but we’ll get to that when we get to that). Women who try to play at politics are slapped down hard and/or demonized; Margaery is catty and mean, Cersei is a tyrant who has to kill everyone to take power, Sansa’s character development keeps getting checked to make her a perpetual victim. Only when women wield the same sort of violent, toxically masculine power that the men are constantly celebrated for do they make any headway, and nearly all of that happens in season six, so we will definitely get to it.
This is really disappointing for a show based on books that build a toxically masculine, patriarchal world and then show how terrible that world is for the characters—all of them, even the men.
Again, at this point, these changes are only just beginning to look bad, but they snowball out of proportion later, and this is where they start to get noticeable and to become a problem.
RIP: Um, nobody. On screen, anyway. That’s okay; they make up for it next week.
Next week: The biggest battle of the season.